Helping the Bottom Billion

Stephen DeAngelis

October 03, 2008

Paul Collier, a professor at Oxford and author of The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times calling for developed countries to focus more keenly on helping countries within whose borders you find the “bottom billion” poorest people in the world [“A Measure of Hope,”. These are the countries that define the very heart of what my colleague Tom Barnett labels the Gap. Collier notes that rising commodity prices have provided a slight glimmer of hope for nations that have natural resources.

“Thanks to the copper boom, Zambia’s economy at last is growing. Last year, per capita gross domestic product rose by around 4 percent. The capital is busy with new construction, and traffic between here and the copper belt is so heavy, travel time has doubled to eight hours. Still, Zambia is diverging from the rest of mankind. Its tax system has until last month been so lenient that most of the new copper profits have gone to the foreign companies that now own the mines. And the political and economic collapse of neighboring Zimbabwe has meant a loss of trade. Zambians remain in the ‘bottom billion’ of the earth’s poorest people — those whom Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, declared would be the focus of development efforts for 2008.”

As bad off as Zambia is, there are other bottom billion nations that don’t even have natural resources that can be exploited for revenue. Helping nations that have little or nothing which they can develop is an enormous challenge. What can be done for them is focus of Collier’s column.

“If the U.N. … really rises to this challenge, how can it help the countries in the bottom billion? Presumably by more vigorous pursuit of its Millennium Development Goals, whose shaky progress toward ending poverty by 2015 is now subject to mid-term review. The Millennium Development Goals have been a major improvement on the unfocused agenda for poverty that preceded them, but the world has changed radically since they were announced in 2000. And the assumptions on which they are based need to be rethought. The World Bank has just raised the bean count of global poverty to 1.4 billion people, from just under a billion. It had previously overestimated the level of Chinese and Indian per capita incomes, so the count now shows that the number of poor Chinese and Indians far exceeds the number of poor Africans.”

Anyone who has visited China or India knows that large areas of poverty still exist. Yet those emerging market countries are much better equipped to deal with domestic poverty challenges than countries in Africa. China and India have a growing middle class and that means that more and more people are gaining a stake holding in the future. Those remaining in poverty in those countries thus have some hope that prosperity might be just around the corner for them as well. Hope, as I have noted before, is essential for sustained development. Collier reports that many people in African nations remain without hope.

“Chinese and Indian incomes are rising far faster and more surely than African incomes. The big difference between a poor Asian household and an equally poor African one is hope, not necessarily for the present generation of adults but for their children. Hope makes a difference in people’s ability to tolerate poverty; parents are willing to sacrifice as long as their children have a future. Our top priority should be to provide credible hope where it has been lacking. The African countries in the bottom billion have missed out on the prolonged period of global growth that the rest of the world has experienced. The United Nations’ goal should not be to help the poor in fast-growing and middle-income countries; it should do its utmost to help the bottom billion to catch up. Anti-poverty efforts should be focused on the 60 or so countries — most of them in Africa — that are both poor and persistently slow-growing. A further weakness with the Millennium Development Goals is that they are devoid of strategy; their only remedy is more aid. I am not hostile to aid. I think we should increase it, though given the looming recession in Europe and North America, I doubt we will. But other policies on governance, agriculture, security and trade could be used to potent effect.”

Collier hits on many of the topics that I have written about in my numerous discussions of Development-in-a-Box™, especially security, governance and trade. Collier goes on to explain how policy changes could make a difference.

“The American biofuel scam (the ethanol subsidies that have diverted 30 percent of American corn away from the food supply) and the European ban on genetically modified seeds, imitated by Africa, have both contributed to Africa’s worsening food shortage. Where is the United Nations pressure for an end to these follies? Why, also, did the United Nations not intervene militarily when the democratic government of Mauritania, another country in the bottom billion, was overthrown by a coup last month? Where is an alternative initiative to open international trade to poor countries now that the Doha round talks have collapsed? Above all, with a five-year-old commodities boom transferring wealth to some of the countries of the bottom billion, where are the international guidelines on taxation and investment that might help these countries convert earnings from exports of depleting minerals into productive assets like roads and schools?”

Collier mixes national and international policies together in his rhetorical questions. Nations can change policy much easier than international organizations. Collier knows very well that the United Nations isn’t a monolithic, sovereign organization capable of broad independent action. The UN can only do what its member states say it can do. It’s a convenient ruse, however, to point to the UN as a scapegoat for inaction. It is a trick that politicians have used for years. That doesn’t mean that leaders of international organizations aren’t trying to use their moral authority and influence to prod developed countries into more effective action. Collier admits they are trying. He concludes:

“I applaud Ban Ki-moon. Like Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president, Mr. Ban is offering more thoughtful leadership on development strategy than has been provided for decades. But he has been stymied by the powerful countries’ failure to rally to his call to focus on the poorest countries. No nation, not even the United States, is now sufficiently dominant for its actions to be decisive. International coordination is needed more than ever. For all its manifest limitations, the United Nations must work. International coordination has been, indeed, the great achievement of the Millennium Development Goals; all the major donor countries have bought into them. But they should now be revised so as to focus on the challenge of helping the bottom billion to converge with the rest of mankind — and on a more realistic timescale. We need not just a ‘Year of the Bottom Billion,’ but several decades.”

I’m not sure whether the New York Times limited the space it would devote to Collier’s op-ed piece, but I would have liked him to describe a more detailed map of that decades-long road out of the valley of poverty. I would like to have read about his priorities and recommendations for dealing with corrupt leaders, tribal clashes, lack of infrastructure, fake borders, and so forth. Collier’s purpose. of course, was simply to keep the challenge of the
bottom billion in mind as the UN General Assembly opened in New York. I’m sure that he is afraid that the fiscal troubles currently affecting the global economy will divert the focus away from the bottom billion to such an extent that their problems will be forgotten until the global economy is healthier. Time, Collier knows, is the enemy when it comes to fighting poverty. You are either progressing or falling behind.